Three of us are avoiding the blistering heat of a desert day before a long climb into the San Felipe Hills.
One of our small band of hikers, who rejoices in the trail name Pathfinder and who had already walked the Pacific Crest Trail in sections, makes a prediction;
“Right now in 2002 and for the next couple of years will be considered, in future decades, to be the classic time on the Pacific Crest Trail”.
It didn’t feel particularly classic, just hot and humid. Sweat oozed from everywhere on my body. It stung my eyes and the multiple blisters I’d patched with duct tape, the moleskin having ran out days ago. Perhaps it was not the best time to fully appreciate his prophecy.
It was April 2002 and I had traveled from Scotland to thru-hike the PCT with my girlfriend (now wife) Liz. We later learnt that Pathfinder knew a lot more than us about long-distance hiking. His real name is Ron Strickland, and he was well into the process of creating The Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT). It’s now an established trail and it turns out his planning is as good as his predictions.
|Start monument with Mexico border fence behind|
Not that I appreciated it at the time. We still had more than two thousand miles and six months of hiking ahead of us. Fortunately, I was carrying a small audio recorder to capture our experiences and conversations like this with Ron. Unfortunately, once we completed the trail and returned to Scotland, I lost the recordings.
Until last December when, during a big gear clear-out, I unearthed a US Zip-lok bag (UK ones are different) stuffed with 11 mini-discs. Remember them? Possibly not, but once I borrowed an ancient player from my local high school, the voices from that classic PCT year transported me two decades into the past.
I was prising open an audio time capsule from a year when fewer than three hundred people started the northbound thru-hike and barely half of them completed it. While the completion rate remains similar, overall hiker numbers are now in the thousands. The PCTA website allocates 50 northbound permits daily between 2nd March and 31 May, that’s 4,600 hikers hitting the trail in 13 weeks.
As I logged and listened to my recordings I realised their true value. They captured a bygone time on the trail more intimately than video. As a former BBC reporter, I’m familiar with the saying “pictures are better on the radio”, and the pictures I saw were outstanding.
Now I’ve turned those 2002 recordings into a Podcast series called Pacific Crest Trail, Then and Now. I spoke to Flyin’ Brian Robinson, the first man to hike, in one year, the Triple Crown of the PCT, Continental Divide and Appalachian Trail. The recorder was running as the best-known angel on the trail Donna Saufley welcomed us to Hiker Heaven and shared her story.
I recorded close encounters with a rattlesnake, a bear and, scariest of all, a demented grouse that attacked our ankles. I heard from Rick at the Seiad Valley Pancake challenge; from the owner of the fabled Stehekin Bakery; from a trail crew from the California Conservation Corps maintaining the PCT. We swapped campfire trail stories with other hikers in the High Desert and the Cascades.
|Hikers at the 'Kick Off' 2002|
Liz and I spent a whole day at the long-gone ADZPCTKO, one of the many acronyms unique to this trail. It’s the Annual Day Zero PCT Kick-Off, a loud and friendly get-together at Lake Morena County Park. Previous thru-hikers, trail angels and experts in the new-fangled ultra-light hiking, helped the jittery class of 2002 reach the trailhead, answer their questions and calm their nerves.
Here we met Henry Shires, a PCTA board member who was in the process of transforming his hobby into a business. He had designed an innovative shelter, part tarp part tent. He allowed us to use one of the first of these odd TarpTents on our hike. We met him again in Lee Vining and spoke about theoretical threats to the trail from development and from increasing hiker numbers.
It’s so much more than a hike down memory lane. It’s a snapshot of lost time on a great trail. It left me wondering, what’s the PCT like now? Has the huge increase in hiker numbers ruined the experience, or just changed it? Might it have brought benefits, increasing awareness of this special, fragile ribbon of land?
|Finish monument on Canadian border|
Although 2002 seems relatively recent to me, in technology terms, it’s the stone age. While hikers now use smartphone apps to navigate and share information about water sources and campsites, we navigated with black-and-white maps alongside a trail description cut from the guidebook. We’d sliced them up in advance and put them in food resupply boxes that our friend Heather mailed to Post Offices along our route.
In towns along the trail, we were considered rare, scruffy oddities whose presence amused the locals and brought in a little extra business. Do the townsfolk now resent the annual invasion that strips small stores of their entire stock of carbohydrates? And what about the really big changes in climate and the consequence of forest fires?
After I tell 2002 our story, in later episodes I attempt to answer some of these questions. I speak to a couple who thru-hiked the PCT in 2022, exactly twenty years after us and only just made it to the border as forest fires closed in around them.
I hear from Mac, who compiles the annual PCT Hiker Survey and who helps me build a mental picture of today’s ‘typical’ PCT hiker. And I reconnect with Henry Shires, to play him those twenty-year-old musings, to discuss what the PCT has become and how the PCTA is helping protect this fragile ribbon of beauty.
As for Ron Strickland, he stands by his prediction of twenty years ago. “If you were to re-hike the PCT now, you would probably find a different experience because of the greater number of annual hikers”, he confirmed, “however, it’s still fabulous.”
Pacific Crest Trail, Then and Now is now live. Search for it where you get your podcasts or go to PCTpodcast.com
Post a Comment